Mrs Guna Kinne and Carmelo Mirabelli with Sylvie Stern and Karen Schamberger, National Museum of Australia, 31 January 2009
MARTHA SEAR: My name is Martha Sear and I am one of the curators who has been working at the Museum over the last three and a half years to develop the new Australian Journeysgallery which has opened this week on level one of the Museum. Today we are here at the Museum to celebrate the opening of the new gallery and to listen to the stories of some very special people who are featured in the new permanent gallery Australian Journeys.
Australian Journeys is a new permanent gallery that is about Australia’s interconnections with the rest of the world. It begins in antiquity and looks at those journeys from the ancient past right up to the present day. It explores how the journeys of people to and from Australia have connected places here with places overseas. Because we are a museum and a museum is a place about objects, the gallery explores how objects play a role in creating and maintaining people’s connections to places that they have journeyed to and places they have journeyed from.
When we began the process of developing the gallery, we started by searching our own collection and seeking in collections and private holdings all around Australia and indeed around the world those objects that were powerful that we thought would interest and affect the visitors who we imagined would come to the gallery. Karen Schamberger was one of the curators who was given the task of going out and trying to find these amazing luminous objects that would illuminate the ways in which the journeys of post-war European migrants connect Australia to places throughout Europe. In the National Historical Collection, which is the collection that is held in trust by the National Museum for the nation of Australia, she found a Latvian national dress and she found the story of the woman who made that dress, Mrs Guna Kinne, and Mrs Kinne is with us today. She also followed up on an offer that we had through the Museum’s duty curator program of some photographs that had been taken by a Sicilian cane cutter. His name was Carmelo Mirabelli and he’s also with us today.
Three years later the exhibits that have evolved and grown out of those first collections and first contacts that Karen made are now to be found in the new Australian Journeys gallery. Some of you perhaps have already seen those exhibits in the gallery. It’s quite an astonishing, thrilling and wonderful moment that we should be here today with both of these remarkable people and their families who have made the journey to Canberra to see the exhibits that appear in the Museum.
Today you have a very special opportunity to hear them tell their own stories, ably assisted by interviewer and arts journalist at 98.3 FM Sylvie Stern. You will also have an opportunity to hear Karen speak. Karen was a curator here at the Museum as we developed Australian Journeys but now has made her own journey south and is a curator at the Immigration Museum which is part of Melbourne Museum and Museum Victoria. She is here to talk about her experiences of working with Carmelo and Mrs Kinne and their families to put the exhibits together.
It’s an honour as well as a thrill for us to welcome Mr and Mrs Kinne and Mr and Mrs Mirabelli and Frances as well and their families to the National Museum today. We hope that you enjoy listening to them as much as we have. There will be a chance at the end of each segment where we speak to each family member for you to ask them some questions, for you to find out more of what interests you about their stories. Without further ado, I will now invite Sylvie to begin our conversation today.
Guna Kinne’s Latvian national dress
SYLVIE STERN: Thank you. Martha Sear and the team have done an extraordinary job. It looks exquisite. I know we also have another contributor who is seated in the audience, so welcome to you as well. It’s a very special exhibition. To gather all the pieces, to funnel down into very small contributions for those of us to come and see is a massive task. There were a number of curators and, as Martha mentioned, Karen worked together with Mrs Kinne and Carmelo.
We are going to begin by speaking with Guna and her husband Arturs who is here as well. I might hand over to Karen briefly - researching even took you travelling to Latvia and travelling to Adelaide. It was an extensive journey of researching. How did you actually meet Guna and decide upon her story and what could get narrowed down to the important pieces of belongings and photos to portray Guna’s story?
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: I was given a number of storylines all within migration of post-World War II people to Australia, and one of those storylines was the migration of displaced persons from Europe. About 180,000 people from the Baltic countries, from the eastern parts of Europe mostly, came from Europe to Australia after World War II. Guna and Arturs Kinne were two people in that group.
The Museum had already had Guna Kinne’s Latvian national dress. She had donated the dress in about 1990. In the late 1980s the Museum had gone about looking for migrant heritage collections. I was going through files. My job didn’t start as glamorous as traveling; it actually started going through our databases and making lists of all the files that looked like they might be useful; and then I started going through all those files.
Guna, your collection particularly stood out to me because of the letter you wrote to the curator at the time: the way you interwove your personal story, the way that you described the making of your dress and the way you had to flee your home country Latvia because the Soviet Union invaded, then Nazi Germany invaded the country and then the Soviets again. It was this whole story of drama and loss, and I was hooked.
So I thought ‘This is awesome. I have to do this.’ I went about doing a bit more reading and I was lucky enough to go and meet you in Melbourne and conducted an oral history. I also went to the Latvian Museum in Adelaide to collect some information. But at the same time, as Sylvie had mentioned, there was another donor offering some Latvian national dresses, so I was able to combine the research for those Latvian dresses with the research I had to do on your national dress. I think those collections have made the exhibit what it is today. Combining all of that research and then being able to ask you a few more questions because I found out information from somebody else was really helpful.
SYLVIE STERN: At this point I might jump in, and please welcome Guna and Arturs to the conversation. Guna, as Karen mentioned, it was a very chaotic time with the war but you were actually born in a very small period of independence in Latvia, knowing the history of times before but still being quite shocked when the second Russian invasion occurred. But in the mean time you went to school, you liked painting, you liked mathematics and you even made it to university to study architecture. But during school, dressmaking was a part of the school curriculum. In Riga you chose for the national dress for you to sew you chose the Nica region. Tell us why that appealed to you.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: There are very many national dresses in Latvia. Each district more or less has its own. I was born in the main city of Riga, and its dress was not particularly pretty, let’s say. Because I was a young girl of 16 or 17, I thought why should I pick that dress, there are prettier ones. So I picked one with a red skirt and gradually I started to make the dress. The first step was in high school there was a handiwork session for girls and we had to embroider something. I selected to embroider a blouse which belonged to that Nica costume. The skirt was bought in a national dress shop and I made it up. My father gave me for my birthday a gift of the crown. The material for the waist I bought and also the embroidery yarn and whatever. I drew the pattern myself and I made it up eventually. And I made the bonnet, which is supposed to be worn by married women, in Australia.
SYLVIE STERN: That’s the interesting thing: patterns are very important to the Latvian tradition and the culture, but you made up your own pattern which makes it a little more unique.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: No, it wasn’t an invention of mine. I copied the pattern from a booklet.
SYLVIE STERN: The pattern book, which you packed in your suitcase and brought with you.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: That’s right.
SYLVIE STERN: The interesting thing is that the costume that you made, which is in the showcase upstairs in the Australian Journeys gallery, was made throughout the entire journey that brought you to Australia. As we said, the USSR invaded again. Your father had passed away. He had been a sea captain and an accountant. But your mother was working as an archivist. They had to pack a lot of the archives into boxes to put on the ship, and she was offered a ticket for herself and you and your sister. And that is how you first travelled or fled Latvia. Where did you end up from there?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: We ended in East Germany in Gotenhafen but it’s now a Polish region in Gdansk and I stayed there for a little while. I actually worked there. Then the Russians were coming, nearing again, the Russian front and we had to flee. I was actually on my own there. My mother and sister had already travelled further into Germany. We had to flee there and I was lucky enough - I was offered by an acquaintance to flee on a submarine. In the last half an hour before departure, I was enticed to go with my girlfriend to a Latvian injured soldiers train. I followed the girlfriend, and luckily for me the submarine went down. We travelled further and then we landed in Berlin which was bombed at the time. From there again I went to a small town in Germany. I actually worked there as well and sat there until the Russian front came there.
SYLVIE STERN: Is that how you ended up in a misplaced persons’ camp? [meant to say ‘displaced’]
Mrs GUNA KINNE: Actually I had to flee again from that particular town to West Germany. I was in one location, and my mother and sister were somewhere else. We lost each other, and my mother found me through the Red Cross. She gave me her address and I travelled to that displaced persons’ camp. But in the mean time my mother had been travelling around and looking for me to different Latvian organisations and searching for me. She was in a train and opposite her were sitting two young men and they started to talk Latvian, my native tongue. My mother spoke Latvian obviously and offered them cigarettes and told her worries that she was looking for her daughter and showed my photograph to one of the soldiers. One of the soldiers said, ‘Well, if I find that girl ever, I won’t let her go.’
SYLVIE STERN: Too true. He is still holding on to you quite tightly.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: I landed in the camp where my mother lived. After a month’s time there was a dance. I didn’t have any particular good dress to wear to the dance and I thought why not wear the national dress? The vest was finished while I was living in Germany. So I wore the dress for the first dance. A young man comes and asks me to dance and started to tell me what my name is and where I was born, et cetera. That finished by us marrying in the displaced persons’ camp and we eventually come to Australia.
SYLVIE STERN: That’s fantastic. So in Germany you completed the vest. That’s another part of the step to coming to Australia. But even though we have had a bit of a laugh and it’s beautiful that you met your husband, there were some very difficult moments during this chaotic time up until 1945. How important was that dress to you because you only had one suitcase and the skirt was pretty big? It was very important to you for your heritage but is there another reason why making your national dress is very important to you, Guna?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: I could ask the audience a question. What do you think the value of the Australian flag is to an Australian soldier in Afghanistan? That was the national dress for me. That was my flag.
SYLVIE STERN: Absolutely - your identity, your flag. It’s beautiful because also in Australia you were saying that you completed the bonnet. Until then you had the crown that your father had given you, but it was suitable for a married woman to wear a bonnet. So that’s the complete story.
Also in the showcases there are some paintings and some woodwork pieces as well. You were saying that by then drawing and patterns were very easy for you. The pieces that we see of the woodwork by Arturs, one of the carvings was actually carved in Latvia and one was carved in Australia?
ARTURS KINNE: No, one was carved in Germany and one in Australia.
SYLVIE STERN: Had you met Guna at that stage already?
ARTURS KINNE: Yes.
SYLVIE STERN: So both of the carvings were when you had already met Guna, because I know you drew the pattern, is that right?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: Yes, that was in Germany and also later on. I was good at drawing, and he was good at carving.
ARTURS KINNE: Guna polished the carving.
SYLVIE STERN: It symbolises the unity, and again it brings you back to Australia. For the Australian Journeys gallery it’s very important we see your story abroad and also in Australia. What was it that inspired you to donate the paintings and how was that connected?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: I was interested in drawing all my life but when we moved into our house the walls were naked, bare. We were saving money and we just couldn’t spend any money on buying paintings.
SYLVIE STERN: Is this when you were living in Wangaratta?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: No, I began painting in Melbourne. I joined an artists club in Dandenong and started painting. Why I painted that Latvian picture was because the sea was very dear to me. I used to spend every summer at the sea in Latvia. I would have spent every summer in Australia at the sea, but he doesn’t like the sea. He likes rivers and likes fishing. So for every holiday we went to a river or to a lake to fish. We went to the Murray more than anywhere else, and I love the Murray. I feel sorry for the Murray. There is so little water left.
SYLVIE STERN: Arturs, I might bring you in at this point, because you both travelled to Australia from Germany. When you first landed here and you were both working in Wangaratta you had a very difficult job. You were working as a trimmer. It might be interesting to quickly explain what a trimmer did back in those days with the coal fires.
ARTURS KINNE: I was working in the Maffra milk factory. After the union protested that I should be given a better job they put me in the boiler room. The boiler room produces the power for the machines to turn around in the factory. The boiler room was fed with coal. The coal was on a conveyor belt and the conveyor belt went under the boiler and produced the power. From time to time, twice or three times a day, I put a dripping wet bag on my back and went underneath.
SYLVIE STERN: These hot boilers. He had to trim the fire and often got burned.
ARTURS KINNE: They burnt ashes out. I last for a bit more than a week and I put my hands up.
SYLVIE STERN: And said, ‘That’s it. I surrender. I’ve had enough.’ So there were some very difficult times in Australia as well. Getting together with the Latvian community and having some dances and festivals also became very important because it was difficult for immigrants back in Australia - even though this was the lucky country it was very tough to see how big Australia was and there were some hard moments. You were also beginning a family and worked quite hard. When the children wanted to go to university, that’s when you moved to Melbourne from Wangaratta.
Guna was saying that Australia really is the land of opportunity. Explain why at age 49 you thought that Australia was the land of opportunity.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: One of my first thoughts when I came to Australia was ‘It’s free. I’m free. I can say I don’t like the Queen, I don’t like the Prime Minister and nobody will put me in prison.’ First I went to technical school by correspondence to learn dressmaking and I worked as a dressmaker. Then I went by correspondence school to a commercial art technical college and I got another diploma. Then I started to paint black and white horse racing pictures to make them coloured. When that job run out because coloured photography came in I thought ‘I don’t want to go to a factory to work, let’s go to university,’ and I finished university with an honours degree and I started work at the archives.
SYLVIE STERN: That’s amazing. Guna went to university at the age of 49 and she graduated with honours. As her mother before her had worked as an archivist, Guna then began a new chapter in her life also working as an archivist for 30 years I think.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: I worked for 30 years until they retired me. I was willing to work ten more years but they didn’t want me.
SYLVIE STERN: Painting and mathematics were very important, and they actually tied in to your abilities and what made you feel confident to go to university. If you have a look at the showcases you will see how talented and creative both Guna and Arturs are with the pieces that you will see in there. As Karen mentioned, Guna’s dress had appeared already in the museum files.
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: It was in the Museum collection.
SYLVIE STERN: It was already in the collection when Karen started the research. Through Guna’s work as an archivist she went on a conference. It would be nice to tell people what happened and how that dress came to be already in the Museum’s collection?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: While I was an archivist there were several interstate conferences and we had to go to the conferences. At one conference I met at lunchtime a curator who also attended the conference and she was Latvian as well. We just started to chat about old times and so on and so forth. Then I mentioned that I’m sorry I haven’t got a daughter -
SYLVIE STERN: They only had sons.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: Who could inherit my national dress. She said, Why don’t you give it to a museum?’ I said, ‘Would a museum take it?’ She said, ‘Well, I will get in contact,’ and she even gave me the National Museum’s address. I contacted you and you said yes, you would like to have it.
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: It’s the serendipity of collecting.
SYLVIE STERN: We are fast approaching the time for you and the audience to ask Guna and Arturs some questions. Guna, now that we understand the national dress that you made was made across the various countries and even here in Australia, what does that dress mean to you?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: It’s very important to me because it gives me a piece of my inheritance, of my memories from my youth, what I have seen in Latvia and what I have learnt from my parents. It’s sort of a ‘half holy’ piece of material.
SYLVIE STERN: You have also worn it here in the streets of Melbourne at a rally.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: Yes, because the dress represents something to me and to any other Latvian who wears a dress like that. So on one particular occasion when the Australian government acknowledged Latvia’s incorporation into the Soviet Union officially, Latvians gathered together in Melbourne and most of the women were wearing national dresses. We made a parade through the City of Melbourne through Collins Street. It was very impressive, and actually I think we won in a way. There was pressure on the government, and the Prime Minister actually cancelled the recognition of Latvia as a republic.
SYLVIE STERN: Congratulations. That was Malcolm Fraser at the time.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: No. Whitlam’s government acknowledged it and Fraser cobbled it.
SYLVIE STERN: There you go. So that dress, as you can see, holds some very significant and important memories and chapters throughout time. Guna, can I say how old you are now? Do you mind if I say your age? She is 86 years old. So that dress that you see in this Museum encompasses quite a huge part of history and a part in Australian history as well, as you have just heard.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: It is also important for me to mention that when I fled Latvia I had one suitcase only. I had lived there for 21 years so what do you collect during 21 years of your life in the living quarters where you live when you had to pick up all the things you want to take with you? You had to think ‘I may never come back,’ and I didn’t either. I took one pair of shoes, one summer dress and one winter dress and one cardigan. And also in that suitcase my mother, my sister and I - we had to carry bread and sausage and whatever, anything edible, in that one suitcase. And I put the national dress in as well so it must have been important to me.
SYLVIE STERN: Well done. How proud are you to see it in this exhibition?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: Very proud.
SYLVIE STERN: There you have a very brief look at the story of some of the objects, belongings and photographs in Mrs Guna Kinne’s story within the Australian Journeys gallery. We also have joining us in the audience another contributor to the exhibition. Are there any questions?
QUESTION: It hasn’t been clear in listening to you why you chose to come to Australia, Guna, what was that process?
SYLVIE STERN: Why Australia? What was it when you were in the displaced persons’ camp in Germany that made you both decide to come to Australia?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: I couldn’t say that Australia was particularly picked, no. Australia was the very first country who wanted to have us.
SYLVIE STERN: Had an open door policy.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: We would have gone to Chile, to Brazil, to Alaska or wherever - wherever was better than Germany.
SYLVIE STERN: As Guna also said, when she first landed on Australian soil she felt she could freely express herself for the first time without the fear of being put into prison for something she might have said that was wrong. So that’s the era and chapter that came upon her as a young girl in Latvia.
Mrs GUNA KINNE: That is only important for a person who has never been free all their lifetime. If you have been limited in your expressions and in your deeds, then you value the freedom of being able to work.
QUESTION: It’s beautiful embroidery, and would you tell us what fabric is in the skirt, the vest and the blouse?
SYLVIE STERN: She said congratulations, it’s beautiful embroidery. She would also like to know what material is in the blouse, what material is in the skirt and what material is in the vest. It’s different materials that you used?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: The blouse is pure linen, the skirt is pure wool and that vest - I think it’s linen as well because at that time there was no rayon nor nylon.
SYLVIE STERN: Is the lining in the skirt though?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: The lining is also linen.
SYLVIE STERN: And your father, didn’t he get the lining on the black market for you as a gift?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: No, I think I got it in the national shop.
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: If I can ask a question: Guna, how did you actually do the embroidery on the vest? How did you embroider on the run because you were making this vest in Germany?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: I used that little thing - KAREN SCHAMBERGER: The pattern book?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: I don’t know what you call it. You put the material in and then you press a ring around it - the embroidery frame. You put the ring around it and then it’s stiff.
SYLVIE STERN: You will also notice there’s a doll in the showcase. You won that at a Latvian event in Wangaratta. Did you make the dress for the little doll as well?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: Yes, I did. It was just out of boredom, I guess. I got a doll and haven’t got a daughter to play with the doll, so best to dress up the doll and put it on the cabinet in the loungeroom.
SYLVIE STERN: When you go up [to the gallery] you will see there’s a brooch and also the carvings that Arturs created. It’s an extraordinary story and there are many extraordinary stories throughout the entire exhibit. Guna and Arturs, thank you very much for being here today and sharing your story with us.
Capturing an Italian migrant’s journey through Australia
SYLVIE STERN: I would like to introduce Carmelo ‘Charlie’ Mirabelli to everybody here and his daughter Frances. Even though it’s a very different story there are some curious parallels that we found while we were all having lunch together. Welcome Carmelo and Frances. You came for a different reason. We will take you back to Sicily where you were a little boy. When you were one month old your father passed away, so your family actually grew up very poor. As a little boy at the age of six, you had to go to work a little bit to help earn money for the family. One day a week you were going to school, but the other days you were working and helping the ladies by clearing rocks and dumping the rocks from the grape fields and putting them into the river. But as you were growing up, you actually decided to go back to school and you took yourself back to school. Just to start tell us a little bit about the life in your village moving up to a young man before leaving and coming to Australia.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: Like you say, my father die when I was one month old. My father had a factory making … to button. When my father die the other partner took everything and give nothing to my mother. My mother was 21 with two children with a little farm and that was all. It was very hard for her bringing us up. My grandmother helps a lot. Then as you say when I was six I started work. I would pick up rocks, put them in a basket, put it on my shoulder and tip them in the creek all day. Then when I have got nothing to do I go to school. Then I was behind in school. They don’t want me to go any more to school because I was behind. But when I grow up I wanted to go to school by myself.
SYLVIE STERN: It was a very proud moment because when you were a little boy they said ‘Don’t come to school any more because there is no point’ -
CARMELO MIRABELLI: The point was we had coupons to buy things during the war. My mother sent me there to get the new coupon, and they say ‘sign in here’. I don’t know how to sign.
SYLVIE STERN: To get the food coupons.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I can’t sign my name. The man who was sitting there to give me the coupon knew my father. He went to me like this [indicates] and I realise there must be something wrong. Then as I grow up more I am going to school and learn how to read and write. I work and I pay for. I finish up not very clever but I can do many things. Then I grow up. When I was 16½ with my brother-in-law we hire a farm and we planted tomatoes. We planted 64,000 tomato plants and one kilo of watermelon seeds – a lot. We had about 20 people working for us, and I was young boy. That year I handled a lot of money. I could buy a farm. The year after that we planted potatoes. We got three wagons full of potato from a gentleman to plant and we plant them all. We spent all the money we had. But then one morning we had a frost and it killed all the potatoes. We lost all the money.
Then I say ‘no more farm for me’. I wanted to work for somebody else. I grew little plants. I hired the people because you know I could do the job and he give all to me. I said do whatever you like. He looked after the property there for a long time - not for a long time, a couple of years. Then I was 19 and I make application to go on the police force. They had an examination and said to me, ‘Go home and wait until we call you.’ That was in 1950 about October. In the mean time my friend had come out to Australia and he write to me, ‘Do you want to come to Australia?’ I said, ‘Oh yes,’ and he make an application for me but I have no idea what Australia look like. I never studied history. I don’t know nothing about Australia. Anyhow, on 20 December I have to decide in the police force or in Australia or in the army – so I go to Australia.
SYLVIE STERN: It’s very interesting because it all becomes very important to Carmelo’s life later on. He arrived in Australia at age 20 but he didn’t go back to Sicily until he was 39 because of avoiding the military and going into the army. Before you left Italy, Carmelo, even though you were poor you had a very good life with your sister, your mother and your grandmother.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I had a very good life. My grandmother looked after us because without my grandmother we can’t grow up. My mother used to go to work. She never worked a job every day. When somebody ask her, you come on one day and she do one day. But it was not enough.
SYLVIE STERN: If I can interject here a little bit to set the pace. After working hard you would come home, there would be clean clothes and your grandmother would iron them - you would go into the plaza and drink with your friends. You had a very good life. You went off to Australia and your grandmother pleaded with you, ‘please don’t go’.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: That’s right. My grandmother, my father’s mother, she tell me, ‘No go to Australia. I give you everything I got as long as you stay here.’ I say, ‘No. I want to go away from here. I want to go and see things,’ and I come to Australia.
SYLVIE STERN: You paid your ticket?
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I paid my ticket. It cost me 240 pounds - Australian money.
SYLVIE STERN: Carmelo had to borrow that money -
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I borrowed the money at 20 per cent - and I come to Australia. I left on 28 December 1950 and I got here 17 February. We landed in Sydney. I want to get a ticket from Sydney to Ingham.
SYLVIE STERN: Ingham is in North Queensland where his friend was.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: Between Townsville and Cairns. They wanted [me] to pay 9 pounds and 14 shillings for the ticket, and I had only two pounds. Nobody help me. They say, ‘We can’t give you a ticket.’ I said, ‘Well, I catch your train.’ They said, ‘No, you can’t do that. The conductor will kick you out.’ I said, ‘When the conductor kick me out I will fight him.’ He said he will call the police. Well if you call the police and they take me in well at least I will have somewhere to stay. I can’t talk English at all. They call the depot and tell him. In the end my friend send ten pounds down to me and they give me the ticket and six shillings. Then I got the train.
SYLVIE STERN: In Sicily you said that you had potatoes, watermelon and tomatoes and you were also fruit picking in Sicily.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I have done a lot of different jobs in Sicily.
SYLVIE STERN: When you came to Australia you also had many different jobs that included fruit picking and cane cutting, very importantly, as well as working on the tracks for the cane trains. But you went up to Ingham. You arrived at 10 o’clock at night so everything was dark and your friend took you to a little house.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I arrive at Ingham to Mr Russo’s ... my friend Ango (?). My friend come to pick me up and he say, ‘I’ve got the bus.’ Where are going? We are going about 30 kilometres. When I got to there it was night-time and he say, ‘you sleep here,’ in a little shed. I am next door. I come to see you tomorrow night. I say ‘All right,’ so I stay there. He brought some bread and food. In the morning I get up - I don’t know where a fire come from so I better go and see where it is. I walk about two kilometres one way and can’t see nothing. I went two kilometres the other way and can’t see nothing. In the night he came and I say, ‘Where are you?’ He said three kilometres away. I said next door and I spent three months there by myself.
SYLVIE STERN: It was a very difficult time after you had been in your village where there had been a lot of friends and here you were completely alone for three months.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I cry a lot and I was sorry I left home. But because I say I go, I never got the guts to go back as they would tell me, ‘I told you not to go’. So I stay here. Then I start cutting cane and my friend. When the season finish my friend went to Townsville to work. I was there by myself. I don’t have enough money because I paid my fare and my mother was sick so I send her money. I had 20 pounds left.
SYLVIE STERN: During that first year of being in Australia Carmelo was paying back the money he owed for the ticket as well as sending his mother, who wasn’t well, money from Australia. So you were pretty isolated. It was pretty difficult in the early days.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: My mother got sick because the ship had taken too long to arrive in Australia and people had said, ‘The ship has sunk.’
SYLVIE STERN: She thought that he had drowned.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: My mother say I have a son and I lost him. Then when I arrive here I write a letter - she was happy but she was sick already. On the ship we write the letter, and the captain of the ship said ‘give us the money and we send the letter,’ and then I send her the letter - to nobody. … Everybody on the ship was sunk.
SYLVIE STERN: We will just let people know a bit more about your working life in Australia. We mentioned you were cutting cane. Show us quickly how you would cut cane because Carmelo had also noticed when he came to have a look at some exhibitions in the Museum that there were no cane cutting knives; is that correct, Karen?
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: That is correct.
SYLVIE STERN: That’s a little bit how Carmelo’s story, personal belongings and objects manifested for his showcase. Before you show people how to cut cane, it might be interesting for Karen to speak a bit about the importance of the donation of some of Carmelo’s objects.
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: I guess it’s by chance again. Because I was the curator working on post-World War II stories I was told that there was an offer of four photographs in a frame of some cane cutters. One of the stories that we were thinking about but hadn’t actually found objects for was to look for southern European cane cutters in Queensland. So I thought ‘Right, now, this might be useful.’ Through Dean, who is Carmelo’s son-in-law, I was asking questions about Carmelo’s life. But it wasn’t actually until I got down to Melbourne to visit Charlie that I realised the depth of his story. It was much bigger than just Italians or even Sicilians in cane fields; it was a story about an itinerant migrant coming to Australia and travelling around following the seasons to make a living, and it was his search for a home. So that really was an interesting story for me.
I was very much interested in the Italian side of the story, because after World War II there was a very significant wave of migration in the 1950s of Italians migrating to Australia, and particularly in Queensland at the cane fields they were joining a community that had begun just after World War I when there had been another wave of Italians coming to Queensland. So Carmelo’s generation were joining a group of Italians who were already there, and this is a process of chain migration which continued after World War II. I was very interested in his story as an example of this because as I understand, Carmelo, you followed one of your friends whose relatives were already here in Australia.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I come to Australia. My friend make an application for me. I come by myself, and my friend make an application for me.
FRANCES: He had his family here.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: My friend come here one year before me and, as soon as he got here, he wanted me to come over.
SYLVIE STERN: You had a great relationship with your friend as well. In your story in the Australian Journeys cabinet there is a fishing line. You guys used to fish together and cook on that little gas cooker spaghetti and fish.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: On the gas cooker we cook spaghetti and everything. But we don’t live together. I was cooking for myself. Then we were cutting cane together one year - I don’t know if you can see on the photo but he’s smaller than me - but they don’t want him on the gang because he wasn’t strong enough. So he had to go to another gang. He died there.
SYLVIE STERN: That fishing line - CARMELO MIRABELLI: The fishing line, I bought it with him the day after I arrive in Australia. He was working and I used to go fishing in the Herbert River in Ingham and used to get barramundi.
SYLVIE STERN: By the way, the Gillett razor that you saw in some of the images Carmelo brought with him from his village, his home town. Just show people how you do cut cane, by the way.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: To cut the cane you have the knife in one hand and then you grab the cane like this, a bundle, and you cut it. Then you lift it up and put it on the ground. It take you three rows, cut one row, put them over there and then you cut the second row, put them on the top and cut the next row, put them on the top again. It got to be about that high. They you cut the top and the next day you put the bundle on the truck. You have to load 15 tonnes to get 10 tonne clear.
SYLVIE STERN: When you were cutting the cane, you sometimes cut your leg as well, is that right?
CARMELO MIRABELLI: Yes, my leg is all cut. Sometimes we missed. We put a bit of soil on it and keep going - not going to stop early.
SYLVIE STERN: Carmelo, you were also very good fruit picker and there was a stage where you moved down to Shepparton. You also bought yourself a Malvern Star bicycle. As Karen had mentioned, for about seven years Carmelo was following the summer to cut cane or pick fruit. In Italy they used to pick fruit from the top down, but the fruit pickers in Australia used to pick fruit from the bottom up which Carmelo thought was a bit peculiar because the more fruit you put in your basket the heavier it got. So it made sense to come down with a heavy basket than to go up. But you won yourself quite a lot of money, your boss made a bet you could pick -
CARMELO MIRABELLI: When I arrived in Shepparton when I got off on the station, everybody had gone and I was by myself. Where do I have to go now? A lot of people were walking the other way so the town must be the other way and I followed him. While I was walking there was a fellow coming down … and he say, ‘Are you looking for work?’ I said ‘yes’ and he said, ‘Do you want to work for me?’ I said all right and I went with him. We went to the farm and he put a little tent up and say ‘you sleep here’. I sleep there three months and I had meat once a week. I can’t buy meat because it would get rotten. The baker would come every day delivering bread. I used to get the bread and dip it in the water, with a bit of salami and a bit of cheese and eat - for three months.
SYLVIE STERN: With your fruit picking you worked very long hours.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: That’s right you have to work fruit picking 12 hours a day - 11 hours of work and one hour of rest. The boss ask me, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want six shillings per hour or two shillings each box?’ I look at the box and I said ‘two shillings’. I can’t speak English - very little - two shillings. He was from Albania and he says, ‘Two shillings, are you sure?’ I say ‘Two shillings’. So I start and I pick 110 cases. He said to me, ‘Where do you learn that?’ Back home. He say ‘why?’ … Wages was 10 pounds per week, and I make 11 pounds in a day. I pick there for seven seasons and I never find anybody pick more than me. Do you want me to tell the bet story?
SYLVIE STERN: Tell everybody about the bet.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: While we were there we started at six in the morning and finished at six in the night. But the pub used to close at six o’clock there. I used to go to Shepparton East to the pub and have a few drinks. We knock off at about a quarter a six. The boss would put us in the car and off to the pub. I went to the pub one day and there were men from Macedonia there. They were talking with my boss and saying I have the best picker. My boss say I have the best one. They argue with each other and they bet 100 pounds.
My boss come to me and say, ‘Charlie I bet 100 pounds on you.’ I said, ‘What - do you think I am a horse?’ He said, ‘No get me wrong.’ So I said, ‘If I win, what to me?’ He said you get 25 pounds if you win. So you have to pick 110 cases in 11 hours. I said, ‘That’s all right. When do you want to do that?’ He said tomorrow.
The next day they give me four rows of fruit because you have to pick two rows and two rows and put the fruit in the middle. You have box there. Come and pick me up from those two trees in here to those two trees in here and give four rows to me. The other fellow come and I say to myself, ‘Today no smoke’. I started work and at 4 o’clock I had 110 cases. He said, ‘You must be a devil.’ He dropped everything and off we went to the pub. He was there. The barman had the cheque there, change the cheque and give the money to my boss, 25 pounds to me and free beer for everybody.
SYLVIE STERN: It would be good to let people know that at one stage after following the summer around you wanted to live in Brisbane because the weather reminded you of your village, but you found that there was not good work there so you moved down to Melbourne. In amongst working on the tracks and cane cutting, there was also picking tobacco, grapes and apricots, but when you got down to Melbourne you ended up working on the wharf.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: No, no. What’s happened is that I wanted to retire in Brisbane because I like the hot weather. … In Brisbane I work at Golden Circle putting pineapple in the tin and in November they sack everybody. I say, ‘Why do they sack us for?’ They say ‘You’ll be back in January.’ What for? They don’t want to pay us a holiday. That’s not good, so I went home and pack my luggage and off to Melbourne. I was in Melbourne before. We had come from Shepparton to Melbourne. I was in Adelaide. I stay in Sydney. I stay in Brisbane. But I chose Brisbane, and then I chose Melbourne and come to Melbourne.
I chose Melbourne - do you know why? I love the farm but I don’t want to be on the farm, because everywhere you used to go the farmer used to say, ‘I built up this farm and now I have nobody to give it to.’ My son went up to Brisbane to school and never come back, and everywhere I went the same story. I say, ‘I go to live in the city. I wonder what she will do, stay with me.’ That’s why I retired in the city and I retired in Ascotvale, Melbourne. I bought a house and then I got married and my wife come. I had a house and everything. From there we start.
SYLVIE STERN: Because we are slowly running out of time I will continue your story a bit and you stop me if I am wrong. We mentioned Sandra, Charlie’s wife. Carmelo, you knew Sandra from your village even from the day she was born?
CARMELO MIRABELLI: When Sandra was a little girl she lived 50 metres away from my house. I am six years older. She was born in 1936 and I was born in 1930, and I remember the day she was born.
SYLVIE STERN: She was 12 and you were 18 the last time you saw her. But when you were in Australia everybody was marrying by proxy.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: A lot of people.
SYLVIE STERN: So you married Sandra by proxy and she was the first girl from your village to fly to Australia.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: To fly in the plane.
SYLVIE STERN: In the showcases you will see that, during the years of Carmelo and Sandra building a life for their family in Australia and finally settling in Melbourne, there are gifts that were brought from friends that came from the village. There’s a wine bottle and various other objects that, Karen, you decided were important to include that tied Italy and Australia together in many ways.
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: Yes, and I particularly liked the camera for that reason. The camera is a really nice metaphor for Carmelo’s story in a way. You were taking those photographs and sending them back to your mother with the remittances, with the money supporting her. What did she think about those photos?
CARMELO MIRABELLI: My mother was happy. Every time I send a photo she is happy ... She never saw me for 21 years. I used to send the photos back because I can’t go back as I would have to go in the army.
SYLVIE STERN: So she saw a part of your life - and that camera still works to this very day.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I bought the camera in Sydney in 1952 when I come back from Shepparton - the first year I went to Shepparton - in George Street to make a photo to send home. Not too many people had a camera. … Nobody got one. I buy one for myself and I used to make photos. That’s why I have a lot of photos because I used to make photo all the time, I would develop and make a double - one packet for home and one packet for me.
SYLVIE STERN: Also in Melbourne, from all the years of experience you built your own home, as did Guna and Arturs as well - Guna designed the plans, patterns, mapping and architecture - but you actually built your own home.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I built two for myself and then I have done a lot of work for the others. I worked to learn it. What’s happened is that I come and I start to work and I worked to learn. Everywhere I go I learned and I could do a lot of things. I built the house and I started it from the foundation and finish it all by myself - plaster, concrete, brick, tiles. I used to do it for the other people. I work for a man who is building a bridge. That’s where I started to learn to mix mortar because I had never done it before. Over there the boss would come - they call me George there because my friend who had taken me over there come from Brisbane and he introduced me as George. He said, ‘George, you could do that?’ ‘Yes, I’ll give it a go.’ Blacksmith today - I done the blacksmith. I drive all the front loader. I used to do the blasting. I had never done it before. He just show me. I had done a bluestone wall. They bring men from Ballarat and one day he showed me what to do. I done the wall. The boss didn’t want to let me go. I say, ‘Not enough money, put the price up,’ and in the end I had to go. After nine years I went. I went to work for myself and do concrete on the road … it rained all year and I nearly lost everything. And then I had a friend who said, ‘Do you want and come and work on the waterfront?’ I said yes.
SYLVIE STERN: On the waterfront and down on the wharf.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: The waterfront was hard work at the beginning because you have to load everything on the shoulder. Then they bring the forklift. Who want to learn? I learn the forklift. Then they bring the container ship. Who want to go to the container ship? I put in an application and I worked on the container ship. I was number 48 on the list. The container ship stay there 22 years. Over there they bring a bigger fork. I wanted to learn. Then a bigger machine again - I wanted to learn. Then the overhead crane - I wanted to learn. The crane that puts the container on the ship – who want to learn that, hands up? Then they bring a bigger, higher one - hands up? I finish up and I have got all the licences. After I got all the licences I went on maintenance fixing the machines. I was a TA, assistant fitter. To go there you have to be able to drive every machine. I have the licence because I could drive every one I got the job. They say, ‘You lucky you got the job.’ My friends say before to me stupid. … They call you all the time to do this and to do that. Then I was lucky. I work 11 years on maintenance and my friend, we work together, he come over here.
SYLVIE STERN: Frances, what an incredible example you have in your father - never quitting, even in very difficult emotional times for him he still endured on. After 29 years you finally went back to Sicily, your mother and grandmother were still alive. There were big celebrations, and Carmelo had brought a video camera to show his children. The video camera unfortunately was unearthed too late to make it into the display cabinet, but it’s still a very important part of the continuation of Carmelo’s story through captured images, whether it be photos or videos. You eventually travelled back, after seeing the videos as a little girl and teenager, to see Carmelo’s home town etc. How did that feel for you?
FRANCES: That’s the worst photo ever taken of me - don’t look at the photo. Other than that photo it felt really good. What was interesting though is that they have absolutely no concept of what it would be like over here and what it would have been like for my father. In listening to my auntie talk it’s just so foreign to them, which is fair enough, the whole concept of what he would have had to do once he got here because they had never left their village. So it was quite interesting.
SYLVIE STERN: Was it interesting for you to see a part of your father’s personality and life where he came from?
FRANCES: Absolutely. We had just heard stories, as you can imagine there are thousands of stories. To go back to this little village which has not altered in the last 60 or 70 years - it’s still exactly the same - and to meet everyone I had heard about, all these cousins and second cousins that I have over there, it was fantastic. I timed my trip so we could go together.
SYLVIE STERN: Carmelo, for you that must have been a very important moment to take your daughter back - also for you after so many years to go back to your home town, that must have been an extraordinary journey.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: But when she come it was the third or fourth time I went.
FRANCES: It was still a journey.
SYLVIE STERN: It was still an emotionally incredible journey for you.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: That’s right. The first time I went I bring my mother here.
SYLVIE STERN: You got the chance to bring your mother to Australia - to Melbourne?
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I bring my mother to Australia, to Melbourne, and she stay here six months. She come for six months and she wanted to go back. My wife had an operation and she wanted to go back. She started to cry so I took them in the city to Alitalia I asked the fellow, ‘You speak Italian?’ He say yes. ‘Tell my mother she can’t leave here before three months because you have to be here three months more.’ He said ‘I can’t do that. You tell her.’ Then I say, ‘You speak Italian?’ He say ‘yes’. Mum, you talk and I say nothing. My mother say, ‘I want to go back home.’ When do you want to go back? ‘As soon as possible, tomorrow.’ He say, ‘You think they build the plane for you? Sit for three months.’ She said, no, I want to go tomorrow. … Three months. Then he said, ‘All right I’ll book the day after three months,’ and she was happy. Then my wife got better and I show her all over Victoria and a lot of places. She was happy.
FRANCES: Her reaction shows just how foreign Australia is to someone who has been in a small village their whole life. There is no piazza to go to. You can’t work out the front door and know everyone in the whole village. It is so foreign. You don’t go in a car to go anywhere in Calatabiano, you just walk. It was very difficult for her.
SYLVIE STERN: As you can see that brings us full circle. Imagine poor Charlie, Carmelo, when he first arrived in Australia arrived at 10 o’clock in the middle of the night and his friend said, ‘Here’s your house. I’m just next door.’ But when he woke up in the morning he was in the middle of nowhere and was alone for so many months.
They are two extraordinary journeys, both very different, personal stories. It’s amazing that the team here have managed to decide what and how - as Martha says - to funnel everything down so that those of us in the general public can come along and see a piece of somebody’s history. Australia now is home for both of you. Is that right? You never forget your memories. My mother is in a similar situation, but Australia now is home. Her heart is split in two places. Hopefully, there are many good memories and celebrations in Australia with your children and grandchildren. I might let Karen and Martha wrap up in a moment. Before we do, are there any questions for Carmelo that the audience might be curious to ask?
QUESTION: My question is to both Carmelo and Mrs Kinne. I work with Karen and Martha and have heard about your stories for quite a few years now. Now that the exhibit is open many visitors will look at your story, and I am interested to know what you would like the visitors to think or feel when they look at your stories and leave the Museum. What is something that would be very important to you that you would like people to take away with them when they look at your stories that are on display?
SYLVIE STERN: Carmelo, when the public comes and sees your bicycle, your fruit bag, your cane cutting knife, your camera and your photographs and they see a little bit of your life, what would you hope that the public thinks?
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I feel proud. I feel very good. It give me a lot of honour.
SYLVIE STERN: You feel very proud.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I feel very proud.
SYLVIE STERN: Do you hope that people come to see it?
CARMELO MIRABELLI: Oh, yes, that’s why I bring it here. I’m very happy.
SYLVIE STERN: Guna, the same question was asked of you: what do you hope that people take away from your story when they see your story in the collection of Australian Journeys?
Mrs GUNA KINNE: I think it’s important that Australia realise how many nations have come together to build it. When we came, there were only eight million of us and now there are over 21 million. Every new nation coming to Australia and their children and their grandchildren, they are building our nation and this empty continent is filling itself. They are also reaping the benefits because it was inviting all these people who hoped for something better for their children. And now we are all here, and our children are here and we’re very happy to be here.
SYLVIE STERN: Was there one more question? Someone just said that’s lovely – there you go, people with you on that. Frances, you must be very proud of your father’s story as well and your children are here in the gallery today also. It’s a continuation over time of your family’s story. You must be proud also.
FRANCES: Very proud and very thrilled that Karen took it up as an opportunity. It was fantastic.
CARMELO MIRABELLI: I would like to say one thing. When I went to Italy once I took a photo of my father, a little photo for the identification card. My grandmother had it. We never had it. Then my grandmother passed away and somebody else had it. I recovered that little photo. My mother say, ‘What do you want the photo for?’ No worry, I take it with me. I come here to Australia and I put my mother and father together and I have got the photo at home. My mother was 44 and he was 27, two years before he died. When he died he was 29, and my mother 44 - I put it together and I make 12 copies. When I went home again I have the photos rolled up in a tube and said ‘Mum, sit down there,’ and my sister was there. I open it up and give it to her, and she say ‘after so much time you put them back with my husband’. I was crying and still cry. She said, ‘That’s the best gift you can give to me. You can’t give me nothing else.’ I made a frame and I give one each to all the relatives - you hang them up or do whatever you like.
SYLVIE STERN: Karen, it must be incredibly fulfilling and satisfying to you. Today we have heard two stories out of many stories. Martha had an immense team of curators that brought a collection of stories into the Australian Journeys gallery. Karen, being able to share what you unearthed and researched with the general public must be a very satisfying feeling for you.
KAREN SCHAMBERGER: Yes, it is very satisfying. It is also a wonderful thing to be able to work with living people. I know some of my colleagues are working on stories in the nineteenth century, but you can’t talk to dead people. You can’t ring them up and go, ‘I think I have forgotten to ask you something.’ I appreciated being able to work with two amazing people who have suffered a lot but also have made an amazing journey through life and through Australia. I was so privileged to work with you both and I was really happy to see you both go through the gallery.
SYLVIE STERN: Now that you have heard some personal stories - it’s different when you hear it - you might like to wander back up and have another look around. Carmelo and Guna are here if you would like approach them and ask them some questions. Martha, it would be a good time to hand over to you.
MARTHA SEAR: I can only reiterate what Karen just said that it is such an enormous privilege to have been able to hear all of you speak today and to know your stories from yourselves. For you to know that the collections that you have gifted to us the Museum will hold those treasures and care for them on behalf of the Australian people forever. We can’t thank you enough for the generosity that you have shown in giving to the Museum those memories and those objects that have meant so much to you. They have travelled through your whole life’s journey and now they’ve become part of our journey too. Thank you for that act of generosity.
Thank you to everybody who has participated today, Sylvie, Karen and the people on the panel. Thank you to all of you for coming along to hear these remarkable people tell their stories. The event has been recorded and we hope to make it available through the Museum’s website. To add to what Sylvie said, I hope you have a chance to once again visit Australian Journeys and to see the exhibits that relate to these two amazing people. Thank you very much for coming today. It’s been very special and moving for me, and I’m sure for you too. Thank you.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018